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State fines Bellingham funeral chapel for cremation, money errors

A funeral home has been fined $6,000 by the state Department of Licensing for failing to reimburse the parents of a baby whose funeral was covered by a charity, cremating a dog in the same place as human remains and substituting a minimum cremation container for a more expensive casket ordered by a family.

The Department of Licensing began investigating Jerns Funeral Chapel after two employees filed complaints about Jerns’ owner and funeral director Brad Bytnar in 2011. The Jerns family sold the funeral home a few years ago and is no longer involved in the business.

The investigation found that the funeral home engaged in improper conduct, improper handling of human remains and improper controlling of human remains. Department of Licensing spokeswoman Christine Anthony said the type of charges that Jerns Funeral Chapel faced were pretty rare.

Bytnar didn’t ask for a hearing for the charges. In May 2014, he signed an order agreeing with the state’s findings. As part of that order, the state fined Jerns $6,000 and suspended Bytnar’s license for three years, though that suspension is on hold as long as he follows the laws governing funeral directors.

The funeral home also had to reimburse the family who had paid $410 for their baby’s funeral, as well as $425 for the family who paid for the more expensive casket.

When Bytnar spoke with The Bellingham Herald about the charges, he denied ever seeing a check from the charity, denied cremating the dog and said the casket mix-up was an honest mistake.

Bytnar said he cooperated with the state and their investigation, and that since the complaints were filed in 2011, he has passed state inspections. He blamed the majority of the errors on former employees who filed the complaints with the state.

“I take my profession very seriously,” Bytnar said. “It hurts to know these issues have come up. We have taken steps to correct that. It really bothers me that a family we’ve served has been hurt.”

The funeral home’s former owner, Nick Jerns, said the charges made him sick to his stomach. Nick Jerns retired in 2007 after he sold the business to an international company that then sold it to Bytnar.

“When you sell the business, you sell the name and you never know what’s going to happen. You hope for the best,” Jerns said after hearing about the charges. “It hurts very much so. It makes my heart ache for families that we’ve served that would read something like this.”

FAILED REIMBURSEMENT

According to the state’s investigation, in early 2011 Jerns charged the parents of a baby boy $476.05 for his funeral. Jerns also made a claim for that amount to the TEARS Foundation, which helps families pay for funeral expenses of infants.

TEARS sent Jerns a check for $476.05 on Jan. 26, and the check cleared the bank Feb. 18. The boy’s family had paid $410 and never received reimbursement from Jerns for the money the charity paid.

The boy’s file at Jerns included two different charging statements for the family, according to the state investigation. Both listed a grand total of $5,171.05. One had an infant burial credit of $4,695 (Jerns provides the majority of infant funeral services at no cost) and a balance due of $476.05 for cemetery fees. The other listed a credit of $4,218.95 and total payments of $886.05 ($410 paid by the family and an additional $476.05), with a balance due of $66.05. Both statements were created on the same day, though only the statement without the additional payment was signed by the boy’s mother on Jan. 11.

Bytnar said he wasn’t the one who met with that family, he never saw that check and there are no copies of the check in the business’ deposits. He described what happened to the check as a mystery.

“There was obviously a change on the statement and I did not generate any of those documents for the family,” Bytnar said.

WRONG CASKET

In January 2011, a woman’s family purchased a more expensive container for her to be cremated in, though funeral home records say she was cremated in the funeral home’s least expensive minimum container. Bytnar said the apprentice funeral director who did the cremation made a mistake when he cremated her in the minimum container. Bytnar said when the apprentice realized the mistake, Bytnar told him to document it and then cremate the upgraded casket during the next cremation session to add to the cremated ashes.

Bytnar described it as “simple human error.”

“We didn’t maliciously substitute anything like that,” he said. “There was an error in getting the proper container with the proper person. Once the error was noticed, we cremated that casket.”

The apprentice was Greg Peterson. His daughter, Tiffany Arnett, also an apprentice, filed the original complaint that started the investigation after she was fired. Peterson quit soon after. In an interview with The Bellingham Herald, they said they had been getting uncomfortable with some of Bytnar’s practices.

Bytnar says they are disgruntled former employees. They also worked under Nick Jerns, in a different capacity picking up bodies. He described them as good employees.

Peterson and Arnett claimed that this kind of casket mix-up happened more than once. If the more expensive casket didn’t get ordered or arrive in time for cremation, they said Bytnar would instruct them to cremate the body in a minimum container. They didn’t know if the more expensive casket would always be cremated to add to the remains. The state’s investigation could verify only one instance of a person being cremated in a cheaper container.

Bytnar said that the funeral home is inspected by the state every year and its records are open to the state. With three sets of logs for each person who is cremated — family files, refrigeration files and cremation logs — he said those kind of switch-ups wouldn’t be possible.

“If that was the case, the state would have found it; they would have seen that happen,” he said. “There’s three different logs that we have, so it’s pretty much impossible.”

DOG CREMATION

In June 2010, the owner of an urn company that worked with the funeral home brought his dog to Jerns to be cremated, according to the investigation. Though the man didn’t stay for the cremation, he gave the dog’s body to Bytnar, he said, and got a call from an employee that day or the next letting him know that his dog’s cremated remains were ready to be picked up.

Bytnar said the man never brought him a dog and he didn’t know why that man said he did. Peterson said when Bytnar told him to clean remains out of the crematory, he removed the dog remains that were inside — including an identifiable dog skull.

“I never saw cremains (of a dog). I never saw an animal,” Bytnar said. “I never saw any of that stuff.”

At the time, Jerns didn’t have a facility for cremating animals. It has since opened a pet crematory.

Nick Jerns said he would get occasional requests to cremate pets, and he would refer customers to a local business that specialized in pet cremation.

“I wouldn’t want to know that my sibling is going to be cremated in a crematory that possibly an animal was in prior to, even though they’re cleaned out thoroughly,” Jerns said. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

The state also charged Bytnar with letting an unlicensed employee sign Bytnar’s name to a death certificate. Bytnar acknowledged that he did.

“Apparently, that was a no-go for the state,” he said.

A Department of Licensing spokeswoman said signing death certificates is a requirement of the law for funeral directors, and Bytnar was required to know that law.

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